Internships and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Review Article: Intern Nation, Ross Perlin, 2011.

It is clear that the economy has changed dramatically since the 1960s. “Flexibility,” “creativity” and “entrepreneurship” are very much the buzzwords of the form of neoliberal capitalism that have replaced the secure, unionized and relatively well-paid work which parts of the Global North enjoyed in the 1960s. However, behind the language of flexibility and personal fulfillment used by the gurus of the new economy the real experience for most of us is increasing precariousness, falling real wages and the erosion of the welfare state. Ross Perlin’s first book seeks to uncover and politicize one of the key actors in our new economic landscape: the intern. In “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” Perlin, a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China and former intern, examines the economic role of the internship industry and the raft of academic institutions, government bodies, corporations, non-profits and internship brokers responsible for creating and maintaining the current interning conditions.

Why is a book on internships important? Isn’t it just paid workers who have the power in our economy? The role of interns to the global economy is, as of yet, understudied, but likely to be vast. Perlin estimates that between 1 and 2 million people annually take internships in American organizations alone, saving firms an estimated $2 billion. Many firms have factored scores of unpaid interns into their business plans. The impacts of an intern wide general strike could be devastating. Disney alone has employed 50,000 interns via its college program, with many working unskilled jobs at Disney World, over the past 30 years. With the destruction of the negotiation strength of many unions, these young interns are being exploited whilst simultaneously having negative effects on the security of many paid staff. With the benefits many organizations reap from the annual hordes of internship-seeking young people it is unsurprising that entry level jobs are disappearing, in turn making internships even more vital. In some careers working for free as an intern is a vital step towards ever finding paid work. For those unable to support themselves through a stint of unpaid work, many careers will be permanently inaccessible. This is one of the first critical books on the intern explosion and is an important read for labor organizers, young people in or considering internships and those of us on the Left in general. Perlin’s book is, ultimately, an impassioned argument for reclaiming the lost rights and privileges of workers, and in the author’s own words, a “step towards sanity and towards justice.” We need to begin recognizing that interns are workers and should be supported and remunerated for the work that they do.

Perlin is quick to explain that being an intern today can entail a variety of different things, from paid and structured programs to non-paid, menial and draining work for little if any reward. These are offered by all forms of institutions from small businesses to non-profits, government bodies to global corporations and the experiences they offer vary between them. Indeed the term intern is a slippery one to define, both academically and legally. The term is traced back to its origins in the United States where the practice of interning (read confining) medical students within an institution for 1 – 2 years before becoming fully fledged doctors was its first use before being adopted by state and municipal levels of the government as a fast track form of recruitment. However it wasn’t until the 1960s when the practice truly expanded into other sectors, seeing a true explosion from the 1990s. This trajectory is likely to be mirrored in most parts of the Global North. For Perlin, the rise of the intern is related to changes in the functioning of the economy and he links his history of internships to The New Spirit of Capitalism as articulated by sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski. Internships are, for Perlin, the outcome of changing forms of work combined with concerted attacks on the wages and conditions previously won by workers. The rise of unpaid forms of work, and young people willing to take them, are connected to the increasing “flexibility” required by workers within neo-liberal capitalism. Exploitative, non-educational, menial and unpaid internships are being developed and facilitated by a nexus of non-business actors. Perlin points out the integral role played by universities selling cheap academic credit, criticizes the internship economy in Washington D.C. and meets several firms in the burgeoning intern brokerage industry.

This exploitation is justified in terms of the supposed educational experiences which those taking part will garner. “Intern Nation” is packed with interviews of current and former interns that explain that this often amounts to thankless, menial tasks such as letter stuffing, coffee making and photocopying. Interns at Disneyland can expect to work in the gift shop, the onsite hotel or the bathroom facilities as part of their internship. Whilst once these tasks would have been paid, now they are offered as exciting, unpaid educational opportunities supported by academic institutions with scores of graduates and students, desperate for experience, clamoring to sign up. The current state of interning is defended academically by a whole host of educational experts promoting “experiential learning” and “situated learning” whilst many campuses in the U.S. have made attending at least one internship mandatory for graduation. The blurring of the line between education and employment in the economy is symptomatic of the raising of tuition fees in many countries and the active development of the current, exploitative internship model by educational institutions.

As the lines between students and unwaged workers blur, perhaps interns can take hope from the struggles of students across the world from the U.K. to Chile, Greece to the United States who have occupied, demonstrated and even rioted to challenge the role which education is currently assigned in our society. The reduction of education to preparation for employment paves the way for the exploitative internships we see today. These actions have shown that the processes of neoliberalism which began in the 1960s and are being redoubled in the face of systemic crisis can be challenged, and that other ways of running our society can come into being. Perlin shows that slowly the amount of lawsuits against exploitative employers is rising as interns realize their rights and begin to fight for them. In the U.K. interns are outing those offering unpaid “internships” to replace paid work and groups such as the Carrot Workers Collective seek to continue building bridges between students (future interns) and interns (ex and future students). It is telling that labor unions are barely discussed in this book. Labor unions will have to alter their understanding of their role and their membership criteria in order to accommodate and support the struggles of this generation of exploited interns. Indeed it seems clear that the struggle over the rights and conditions of interns is a modern form of labor struggles which in previous ages secured many workers the guarantee of a better life.

Perlin’s book is an interesting and well researched exploration of an under-exposed phenomenon. Whilst focused on the United States its findings and conclusions are universal. Jam packed with shocking statistics and revealing interviews with interns and those that employ and coordinate them, it provides an inside view into the topic and a welcome break from the hordes of self-help books proclaiming the value of an unpaid internship. As we begin to look at the fundamentals of our society the ways in which our young people are integrated, unpaid, into the economy must be politicized and challenged. Hopefully, the origins of resistance to exploitative internships can be seen emerging; now we must find ways to stimulate and support these.

This article was originally written for Left Eye on books and was published on 11/10/11.

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Posted on October 28, 2011, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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